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Cortisol: Man Killer

Elevated cortisol is a huge problem for many men and will destroy everything you hold dear as a male.  In fact, it is actually astonishing how much damage one hormone can do.  Testosterone can boost your career, relationships and sex life.  Cortisol will undo the same and tear you apart head to toe.

Don’t believe me?  Check out these 10 research-backed reasons that (elevated) cortisol and manliness just do not go together well:

1. Visceral Fat. It is no secret that visceral (stomach or belly) fat kills. It is associated with Metabolic Syndrome and many other nasty diseases that can lead you and your sex life. What many men do not realize is that cortisol actually helps push fat to the abdomen [8][11], because, among other things, visceral fat has four times the number of cortisol receptors. [3]

So why do men tend toward abdominal obesity?  Yep – the have great “cortisol reactivity”, i.e. when under stress, they have higher cortisol levels than women. [1] Well, and they just tend to have higher cortisol levels. [5] This, on average, makes them much more susceptible to inflating that “spare tire”.  You can read more about it in my link on Visceral Fat and Abdominal Obesity.

2. Testosterone.  Several studies have found that elevated cortisol leads to lowered testosterone levels. [2] How does cortisol attack your testosterone? It actually does this through an enzyme that affects testosterone in the Leydig cells of the testes. See my link on Stress and Testosterone for more information.

3.  Secondary Hypogonadism. Researchers have reported that in some extreme cases stress can cause secondary hypogonadism, which means clinically low testosterone resulting from failure in the signaling to the testes and not the testes themselves. This can happen from being overweight, for example, because excess body fat can turn off proper signaling from the hypothalamus.

Well, it turns out that excess cortisol can do something similar, i.e. lower GnRH output from the hypothalamus. [4] Of course, GnRH is what signals the pituitary from.

4.  Insulin Resistance and Blood Glucose.  Higher cortisol levels are associated with increased insulin resistance and elevated blood glucose levels. [11]

5.  Memory Loss and Brain Shrinkage..  A number of studies have shown that higher-than-normal, long term cortisol levels can damage the hippocampus, the seat of memory for all humans. [12] Furthermore, several structures of the brain, especially the hippocampus, have been shown to actually shrink with long term cortisol exposure. [12]

NOTE:  If you feel you have likely damaged and/or shrunk your brain matter due to excess stress/cortisol, don’t panic.  Researchers have found good evidence that the brain shrinkage is actually reversible (to one degree or another) for a number of high-cortisol conditions, including depression [15] and Cushing’s [13][14]. The reversibility (significant but partial) of Cushing’s Syndrome brain matter loss is particularly significant considering the severity of the disease.

In addition, you can likely rebuild and increase your brain through mindfulness meditation [17] or the vispanna meditation. [18]  Progressive Muscle Relaxation will certainly protect your hippocampus from damage and may help to rebuild it as well.

CAUTION:  Some psychiatric illnesses (PTSD, i.e. Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome are actually characterized by low serus cortisol levels.  This is probably due to overexcitation of cortisol for many years.

6.  Blood Pressure.  It is no secret that stress raises blood pressure and can be a significant factor in hypertension. So it should be no shock that the primary stress hormone, cortisol, has been found in multiple studies to raise blood pressure. [5][11] Of course, hypertension is a leading cause as I document in my link on High Blood Pressure and Erectile Dysfunction.

7. Arteriosclerosis. One study verified 5 and 6 but also found that, not too surprisingly, that higher morning cortisol levels were associated with accelerated arteriosclerosis, i.e. arterial plaque. [6]

8. Neuroticism and Depression.  Higher morning cortisol levels have been associated with your odds of being neurotic [18][19] and may also play a role in developing depression. [20]

9.  Metabolic Syndrome.  Thanks to #1, many researchers believe that elevated cortisol may be the primary cause of the Metabolic Syndrome. [7][10][11] Visceral fat and insulin resistance go hand-in-hand, so this is no wonder. Several studies have shown that stress and Metabolic Syndrome are related giving still more evidence to this relationship. [9]

10. Diabetes.  With the decreases in insulin sensitivity and the increases in blood glucose very often comes Type II diabetes according to the latest research as well.

11. Cholesterol.  Ever feel like you’re fighting a losing battle with your cholesterol levels.  Well, the primary reason is likely Saturated Fat – see my page Why Saturated Fat Can Be Bad For Men According to the Latest Research – but cortisol can play a role as well and studies have shown that elevated cortisol can in turn elevate cholesterol levels as well. [5]

12. Erectile Dysfunction.  Stress has been tied into erectile dysfucntion and itis no wonder considering that it almost always raises cortisol, which in turn raises so many cardiovascular risk factors. [21]

So how do you get cortisol under control.  See my links on Stress Management and Progressive Muscle Relaxation for practical and natural answers.


1)  Obes Res, 1999 Jan, 7(1):9-15, “Stress-induced cortisol, mood, and fat distribution in men”

2) CELLULAR AND MOLECULAR LIFE SCIENCES, 1981, 37(12):1296-1297, “The relationship between high and low trait psychological stress, serum testosterone, and serum cortisol”

3) Psychosomatic Medicine 62:623-632, 2000, “Stress and body shape: stress-induced cortisol secretion is consistently greater among women with central fat”

4) Neuropsychopharmacology. 2005 Oct;30(10):1906-12, “Testosterone suppression of CRH-stimulated cortisol in men”

5) Hypertension, 1999, 33: 1364-1368, “Cortisol Effects on Body Mass, Blood Pressure, and Cholesterol in the General Population”

6) Atherosclerosis, Feb 1977, 26(2):151 162, “The association of elevated plasma cortisol and early atherosclerosis as demonstrated by coronary angiography”

7) The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, Aug 1 2009, 94(8):2692-2701, “The Pathogenetic Role of Cortisol in the Metabolic Syndrome: A Hypothesis”

8) Science, 7 Dec 2001, 294(5549):2166-2170, “A Transgenic Model of Visceral Obesity and the Metabolic Syndrome”

9) BMJ 2006, “Chronic stress at work and the metabolic syndrome: prospective study”

10) British Journal of Nutrition, Jun 2000 , (83 Suppl)S49-S57, “The metabolic syndrome a neuroendocrine disorder?”

11) Issue Clinical Endocrinology, Apr 2003, 58(4):500 505, “Cortisol and the metabolic syndrome in South Asians”

12) Nature Neuroscience, 1998, 1:69 – 73, “Cortisol levels during human aging predict hippocampal atrophy and memory deficits”

13) Psychoneuroendocrinology, Jun 2005, 30(5):505-515, “Plasma cortisol levels, brain volumes and cognition in healthy elderly men”

14) The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, May 1 2002 87(5):947-1948, “Cortisol, Cushing s Syndrome, and a Shrinking Brain: New Evidence for Reversibility”

15) Psychiatry Research, Mar 1983, 8(3):191-197, “Relationship of cortisol hypersecretion to brain CT scan alterations in depressed patients”

16) NeuroImage, 15 April 2009, 45(3):672-678, “The underlying anatomical correlates of long-term meditation: Larger hippocampal and frontal volumes of gray matter”

17) The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Jan 27 2010, 16(1), “Vipassana Meditation: Systematic Review of Current Evidence”

18) he American Journal of Psychiatry, Apr 01 2005, 162(4), 162(4), “Enhanced Early Morning Salivary Cortisol in Neuroticism”

19) Biological Psychiatry, Mar 2001, 49(5):410-415, “High and low neuroticism predict different cortisol responses to the combined dexamethasone CRH test”

20) The American Journal of Psychiatry, Apr 01, 2007, 164(4), “Increased Waking Salivary Cortisol Levels in Young People at Familial Risk of Depression”

21) Psychiatry Research, March 1983, 8(3):191-197, “Relationship of cortisol hypersecretion to brain CT scan alterations in depressed patients European Urology, January 2005, 47(1):80-86,”Prevalence and Risk Factors for ErectileDysfunction in 2869 Men Using a Validated Questionnaire”

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